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Arthur C. Clarke: The Final Interview
by Saswato Das
IEEE Spectrum
January 2008

KUMAGAI: This is Spectrum Radio. I’m Jean Kumagai.

TAPE: music from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

KUMAGAI: Most of us know Arthur C. Clarke as a science-fiction writer, most notably of 2001: A Space Odyssey. His impressive body of work puts him in the ranks of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Isaac Asimov. Clarke has spent a lifetime imagining and writing about technology. In the 1940s, as a young officer in Britain’s Royal Air Force, he envisioned using geostationary satellites as communications tools—well before there were any satellites. Now, of course, they’re commonplace and have revolutionized the way we communicate and send information, as Clarke said in a recent video.

Clarke: Growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, I never expected to see so much happen in the span of a few decades.

KUMAGAI: Clarke has witnessed the dramatic outbursts of technology—from the first rocket flight to the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, to the landing on the moon.

TAPE: brief Sputnik-related audio

KUMAGAI: A former chairman of the British Interplanetary Society and an early promoter of space exploration, Clarke was knighted in 2000 for his literary and scientific contributions. He has lived in Colombo, the capital of the island nation of Sri Lanka, since 1956. Now 90 years old and in failing health, Clarke agreed to a series of interviews with Spectrum’s Saswato Das.

Saswato Das: We started with geostationary satellites—satellites in orbits above the Earth’s equator that have a remarkable property: their rotations match the Earth’s. And so the satellites look stationary from Earth and are extremely useful for communications, since transmitting and receiving antennas on Earth don’t have to track them. In 1945, Clarke proposed that geostationary satellites would be ideal telecommunications relays. Today there are about 300 geostationary satellites in orbit—sometimes called "Clarke orbits." I asked Clarke whether he’d suspected, back in the 1940s, that geostationary satellites would prove to be so valuable to telecommunications.

Clarke: I’m ofen asked why I didn’t try to patent the idea of a communications satellite. My answer is always, "A patent is really a license to be sued."

Das: Do you remember what got you thinking about geostationary orbits?

Clarke: I can’t pinpoint the exact reference….I’m not sure who first mentioned the idea. One of the moons of Mars is always in a stationary orbit…that’s probably a reference.

Das: Did you discuss your paper with someone else before publication?

Clarke: Probably discussed it with my friends in the Interplanetary Society. I never received any additional input, so it was all my own work.

Das: While Clarke came up with the idea of the communications satellite, it was John Pierce of Bell Labs who was instrumental in developing the first communications satellites, Echo I and Telstar, in the 1950s. Clarke had interacted with Pierce during that period. I asked him about his collaboration with John Pierce when the first communications satellite was built.

Clarke: We were good friends; we wrote a number of papers of together.

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